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Diesel Movie Review: Chaplin, the Movie (1992)

He was the Little Tramp that Could.

Charlie Chaplin.  The name alone invokes the image of the Little Tramp, the black and white flicker of the silent film, and the stylized slapstick of yesteryear.  You need never to have seen one of his films to know instantly the bowler hat, cane, and oversize shoes.  He's so emblematic that he still sees imitation, reverence, and reference in today's comedy.

And yet this legend of the late Steam and Diesel eras remains mysterious, quirky, and iconic.  This movie, based in a large part on his autobiography, seeks to shed some light on that, and tellingly can only reveal so much.

Framed by a story of Charlie (Robert Downey, jr., in an Oscar-nominated performance) writing his autobiography with the assistance of fictional editor George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins), this long and sweeping biopic surveys his life and career from his childhood in English poverty through his career in Vaudeville and his triumphs in Hollywood to his eventual exile at the hight of the Macarthy era before coming full circle to his Lifetime Acadamy Award in the 1970's. 

Despite its long running time (2 1/2 hours!) it can only manage to survey this complicated story, but oh what a sweeping story it tells!  With Chaplin himself as virtual narrator (as he dictates his story to his editor) it takes on an at times mystical, tragic, or unreliable tone, leaving you to guess what's real and what isn't, what or who he is protecting, and what he is exagerating or downplaying.  The focus never leaves Chaplin, and all the myriad and star-studded supporting cast are reduced to mere flashes and near cameos, even life's loves.  We see the peak of Vaudville, the birth and growth of Hollywood film from silent into talkies, and the sweeping change of politics in America and the world through two world wars and into the Cold War.  The result is a story of the story itself, and through Charlie we see Hollywood and the world both grow and shrink, and improve and regress.  With a non-linear framing device around a mostly-linear narative, the story unfolds as much about how Chaplin wanted to be remembered as to how he lived.

The greatest weakness is this survey-dom of his life.  No single event, love, film, tragedy, or accomplishment gets more than a couple minutes of runtime.  His mother's insanity and committal (with Geraldine Chaplin playing her own Grandmother), his myriad (often underage) loves and wives, his children, the controversies and scandals, even his political persecution by J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn) come and go with only a small burst of fanfare.  But each of these personal relationships shines brightly for the brief seconds it is there, from his early collaboration with film legend Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd), his financial and familial ties to his brother Sydney (Paul Rhys), his close friendship with Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline), to his ultimate lifelong marriage to Oona O'Neil (Moira Kelley).  Each begs for more time and exploration the film's sweeping story has no time to tell.

Visually it is breathtaking.  Downey captures Chaplin so perfectly at every age (save childhood and adolescence, which younger actors portray) that it is uncanny and easy to lose the actor in the part.  The set and scenery are beautiful and true with vintage clothing and vehicles, and simply watching Hollywood transform from cattle and orange groves in 1913 to the big city alone is worth the rental.  Music is deservingly oscar-nominated and captures the setting perfectly.  Director Richard Attenborough visually manages to not only capture the times but the visual storytelling techniques of the era, with scenes played out like classic Chaplain shorts in parts.  Supporting cast, though limited to virtual cameos, are all stunningly on-target getting the most out of their few lines. And the recreations of classic Chaplain bits are as funny and fitting now as when original.  Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the film is how much it makes you want to dig up the original Chaplain works to see anew.

The storytelling is, as aluded to earlier, very evocative yet by necessity sparse.  It is perhaps by design sparse as well, as even Chaplin's life's loves barely register on-screen as they might well have registerd in life to the workaholic Chaplin.  The result is a magnificent tale of a very great, powerful, talented, and ultimately isolated man on a self-built pedastal.


Ratings (1 - 4 stars)

  • Diesel*: 4 - Perfectly captures the look, sound, feel, and times of the late Steam through early Atomic eras and is mostly in the Diesel Era.
  • Punk**: 3 1/2 - Like all things only brushes upon the subject, but follows Chaplin's bravery and controversy in standing up against anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant bias and openly opposing Naziism before it became popular...moves that get him on the wrong side of J. Edgar Hoover.
  • Acting: 4 - Not a miscast or mistep.  Downey well deserved the Golden Statue he'd been nominated but snubbed for.  Support cast shine for the little time they have.
  • Production: 4 - Simply breathtaking.  Beautiful and epic.
  • Overall: 4 - An outstanding movie that looks at a Hollywood legend from the 40,000 foot level.  Long and limited to but a survey of his life (perhaps a bit overambitious?), but manages to be a stunningly great look at a great Diesel Era life.

* "Diesel" measures the movie's capture and use of the Diesel era aesthetic and/or ethos, including set design, costumes, culture, music, technology, and direction.

** "Punk" measures how well the movie uses or explores punk themes or values.

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